The main political parties all accept the importance of securing a strong digital future with super-fast broadband, but each has made vague promises, leaving out some crucial factors that would allow us to hold them to account if they form part of the next government. We see some differences in the plans for how next generation broadband will be funded, in particular the level and timing of government intervention, but we don’t have clarity from any party on both the question of what 'next generation' broadband means in terms of speeds, and how universal will access to this high speed broadband be? In other words, will they guarantee that every single household will get it?
The budget last week confirmed the government's plans to implement its 50 pence a month levy on phone lines (the "broadband tax") to fund next generation broadband for the hard-to-reach areas known as the 'final third'. As the general election draws nearer, we are seeing more politicians talk about broadband and what it can do to help the economy.
Last year, the government published the Digital Britain Report which informed the drafting of the Digital Economy Bill. This legislation covers a number of different areas ranging from public service broadcasting to the challenges posed by unlawful distribution of content online. The report also affirmed the need for universal access to broadband.
The Digital Britain Report identified two components to ensuring a successful digital economy in terms of broadband availability; "the right network today and the right network tomorrow". This has resulted in two mechanisms to ensure universal access.
To tackle the short term requirements, the government introduced the concept of a Universal Service Commitment (USC) of 2Mbps to 'virtually' everyone in the UK by 2012. This is approximately half the average broadband speed across the country today. This will be provided for by using the surplus from the Digital Switchover project. It is expected that both copper and wireless solutions will be used to deliver this, depending on the area.
The Labour government has also promised 'next generation broadband' to 90% of the UK by 2017, funded by the 50 pence per month levy on fixed phone lines. This is expected to raise about £1bn over seven years and will be used to support projects for the 'final third' of the UK which would otherwise be unlikely to receive a super fast broadband service. There are some exemptions which we expect for the levy, including social telephony services designed to provide basic landline services to everyone. This levy (plus VAT) will be collected by telecommunications providers from October 2010, if the Labour party wins the general election.
In a speech on 22 March 2010, two days prior to the budget, Gordon Brown said that proposals for online delivery of government services "depend on reaching 100 per cent" coverage of next generation broadband by 2020 and he expects to "make Britain the leading superfast broadband digital power creating 100 per cent access to every home", which suggested to analysts that the budget would contain additional funding. Channel 4 correspondent Benjamin Cohen queried this and did understand this to mean truly universal coverage, although it later transpired that this was an 'aspirational' statement, not government policy.
The Conservative Party supports the Universal Service Commitment of 2Mbps introduced by the current government by the same 2012 deadline, however it has also stated that it will deliver 100Mbps to the 'majority of homes' by 2017 which would possibly be funded by setting aside (top-slicing) part of the BBC license fee at some point after 2012. This funding would then be used as loans or on a 'matched funding' basis to support investment in high speed broadband in difficult areas.
In addition to this, the Conservatives also proposed that BT should open up access to its underground ducts and telegraph poles so competitors like lay their own fibre as in France and Singapore. BT have since confirmed they are looking at implementing such solutions in any case. The Conservatives would also change the rating system for fibre networks to remove "all current disadvantages suffered by new operators", which refers to the way non-domestic rates (a type of council tax for businesses that run fibre optic networks) are calculated which many argue prefer companies like BT.
Generally speaking, the Conservative Party is keen to encourage private investment and believes this will go far. They accept that some government intervention may be necessary but as far as next generation broadband is concerned, they would look to do this from 2012 onwards.
The Liberal Democrats also support the government's plans to deliver 2Mbps by 2012 including using the digital switchover surplus to fund this, although they believe 2Mbps is an 'unambitious target'. A key difference is that the LibDems believe that the delivery of the USC should be combined with the project for rollout of next generation broadband, so those who currently can't get broadband would be among the first to get next-gen broadband. They also believe mobile broadband could have a role to play in some hard-to-reach areas and they therefore believe efficient use of the radio spectrum is important.
In terms of speed, the Liberal Democrats would like to see the 'vast majority' of the country being able to access 40Mbps+ speeds by 2017, and they believe to deliver this, immediate intervention and targeted funding is necessary, although they admit "it won’t be possible for absolutely everyone to receive next generation access" immediately.
The LibDems oppose the Conservative policy of top-slicing the BBC license fee and support the current Labour administration's 50 pence per month levy on telephone lines "if applied properly and with exemptions for the least well off". They also welcome BT's decision to open up access to their ducts. The LibDems believe that it is important to encourage more services that make use of high speed broadband to drive demand.
The policies of the main three parties mirror in many ways their general attitude to government intervention, and the effect of these policies will no doubt vary depending on where you live and your political ideology. If you reside in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, some of the slowest regions of the UK in terms of average broadband speeds, you will also wish to consider the policies of parties involved in devolved administrations which may have significant influence through additional policies.
|Party / Policy||Short Term||Long Term|
|Labour||2Mbps USC to 'virtually' everyone by 2012 funded by Digital Switchover surplus funds||Deliver 'next generation broadband' (speed unspecified) by 2017 for 90% of households funded by 50p/month levy on phone lines.|
|Conservative||Generally agrees with Labour policy.||100Mbps to 'majority of homes' by 2017 funded possibly by top-splicing BBC license fee from 2012. Expects market to lead with government intervention from 2012 onwards. Encourage competition by requiring BT to open up ducts/telegraph poles.|
|Liberal Democrat||Generally agrees with Labour policy. Would combine with project for next-generation broadband.||Expects 40Mbps+ to 'vast majority' by 2017. Agrees with Labour's 50/month levy on phone lines but believes some exemptions necessary. Welcomes BT ducts/telegraph poles being opened up.|
In terms of the 2012 goals, the government has started putting into place the infrastructure to deliver the Universal Service Commitment (2Mbps by 2012) and as the policy is supported by the other two major parties, this is likely to proceed as planned no matter what the result of the general election. In terms of the long term claims, we believe the promises made are in effect no different between these parties as each uses wording which is ambiguous on either speed and/or coverage. In other words, 100Mbps to 'majority', 40Mbps+ to 'vast majority' and 'next generation broadband' to 90% are quite compatible with current technology.
BT is in the process of rolling out fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) services which will be able to deliver up to 40 Mbps (potentially more) to a large part of the UK (possibly up to 90%, although this is uncertain) and Virgin Media is already providing a 50 Mbps service which is available to over 50% of the homes in the UK, with trials under way for 100 and 200Mbps services which are expected to be launched by the end of 2010 and 2011 respectively. Finland has promised 100Mbps for everyone by 2015 and some other countries are already talking about delivering 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) services.
We believe the key challenge is how quickly each party can deliver 100Mbps to 100% of the UK. We also believe that the focus on headline download speed does not address the real problems of ensuring that everyone in the UK is able to receive a service that is fit for purpose, and which allows them to take part in the digital economy. It is therefore important that both upstream speed, quality of service, and average speeds are also included.